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Saturday, February 5, 2011

‘Dead Space 2’ Delivers Action and Thrills (Video Game Review)


Dead Space 2: 4 ½ out of 5

Dead Space 2 is a fantastic follow up to the original Science Fiction/Survival Horror sleeper hit from Visceral Games and Electronic Arts.  It is not as much a significant upgrade as say Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed II, but it takes what worked very well in an already great first entry and adds little tweaks and a more diverse setting to make the gameplay and overall experience very satisfying.  The game also benefits from a solid narrative, particularly in its handling of the protagonist’s internal struggle, which is appropriately creepy and very well done.  Speaking of creepy, this is certainly a game that will make you feel uneasy if you find yourself in the right sort of setting while playing.  Dead Space 2 delivers more enemies, more weapons, plenty of dark spaces to move through, and graphic carnage to be seen.

(Note:  There is an option to recap the events of the first game in the main menu, for those who need a refresher or are new to the franchise, but suffice it to say – a space crew is sent on a rescue op, to check out a desolate space ship that is running wild with human/alien hybrids.)

The sequel begins in a way that is true to the spirit of this franchise, by placing the player in a situation where they are incredibly vulnerable and forced to flee for their life, as chaos begins to reign in their new location.  Once again, the player assumes the role of engineer Isaac Clarke, lone survivor of the events that took place in the first game, this time haunted by visions of his dead girlfriend, Nicole.  This aspect sets up the most intriguing elements of the plot of the game, as the creepy Nicole moments provide an interesting inner turmoil for Isaac, which in turn helps the narrative of the game along and informs us more of Isaac’s character.  But enough of that stuff, the games is about blasting big, nasty creatures in the dark, and that’s what most of the game features.


Isaac is now aboard the Sprawl, a city built on one of the moons of Saturn.  Due to an artifact known as “the Marker” (we know about this from events in the first game) having been built and stored in a locked off section of the Sprawl, the creatures known as “necromorphs” have reemerged and are now swarming the city and causing chaos everywhere.  Isaac finds himself in contact with a few human survivors, as he makes his way through the now darkened city, and does what he can to destroy the Marker and escape the ruined city.  Of course, Isaac has also dealt with these creatures before, so hopefully there is some room for him to make payback his bitch.

As with many modern video games that fall within the genre realm, the narrative of this game (and the first) obviously takes inspiration from many familiar and classic sci-fi films.  Whether or not you are engaged by the plot is up to you, but this game does a good enough job at establishing its central character and keeping you clued into his psyche.  While the first game had Isaac as a silent and mostly faceless hero (his suit has a mask), this sequel has Isaac constantly speaking and removing his helmet, well establishing a personality for him.  For me, this worked.  I liked being able to see Isaac this time around and finding ways to relate to his character (it also helped that every time the game would try to scare me enough to yell out an expletive, Isaac would do the same).


The narrative is good enough, but really, this game’s strong suit is easily its sound and art design. While it fits more into the category of an action/survival horror hybrid, the game is at its best when you are stuck in pitch black corridors, lit up only by your own flashlight.  The structure of the game plays incredibly well with having various sounds pull your attention all over the place and keeps you on your toes.  Adding to that is the incredible work with light and shadow, as all of the elements of the environment have a way of suggesting that something creepy with intent to kill is right behind you, ready to strike.  While Dead Space 2 is heavily reliant on “jump scares” as well, this is a game that features amazing atmosphere and knows how to create an unnerving environment.  I only play this game at night, in the dark, and with the speakers turned way up.

As enjoyably scary as this game can be, it also goes well to say that this is a very good looking game, once the light comes on and you are tasked with disposing of many enemies.  The environments have a way of coming off as varied, as you follow Isaac’s journey throughout a major city.  That’s not to say that all of the environments are drastically different from each other, but there are certainly many different looking locations compared to the first game.


The game is also incredibly M-rated.  Looking at pretty environments is all well and good, but this game also delivers some very gory deaths to both the enemy and you.  It is kind of disgusting in the many different ways that you can see Isaac succumb to his own demise, but it can also be darkly comedic at times to see the amount of effort put in to showing you why certain decisions may have been very, very bad ones.  The game also makes sure to create some pretty jarring moments in regards to what people tend to be more sensitive to.  Suffice it to say that some mistreatment of eyes may come into play.  So lots of blood and gore for the kids to interact with here!


In addition to the sound and art design, the voice work and score are both effective enough.  All of the actors do a good enough job to keep me from being taken out of the experience of the game.  The music by Jason Graves is a blend of ominous tones and intense “this friggin’ headless alien is coming right at me!”-type beats that work their way well into the game too.  Further helping this sense of atmosphere is the presentation while playing.  Just as in the first game, there are no actual health bars or ammo gauges on the corners of your screen.  Instead, these elements are all incorporated into your actual character.  So you have a health bar on your back, and you can figure out your ammo when aiming your weapon, etc.  This all helps to keep you within the experience, while exhibiting a cool twist on a standard game mechanic.


As far as the gameplay goes, little changes have been made to improve upon the first.  The controls feel more responsive, Isaac feels a bit faster, some inventory buttons have been mapped to the controller, and playing the game feels a whole lot more intuitive.  Dead Space is, at its core, a third-person shooter (akin to something like Resident Evil 4), and the ultimate goal is to dismember your enemies.  That’s right!  To you newbies, the only way to fight off your enemies is by using the weapons you have to blow apart the limbs of the foes coming after you.

The weapons you have, similar to the first game, are not your traditional weapons.  As Isaac is an engineer, he does not use hand guns and shotguns.  Instead, Isaac uses various types of tools and cutting equipment, perfect for detaching pieces from the enemy.  Along with some of the old standards from the first game, the sequel introduces a couple new weapon types, including “the Javelin”, which acts as a rod you shoot into foes and then trigger it to electrocute all who are around it.  It’s the little things like this that make you appreciate quality monster carnage.


Besides these new weapons, the sequel also makes your other two abilities all the more necessary.  I am referring to your “kinesis” and “stasis”.  The kinesis acts as Half-Life-like gravity gun, which pulls items close to you, and you can then shoot those items back at enemies, such as their own sharp, severed limbs.  The kinesis has been greatly improved this time around and is a very helpful tool, given the ammo saving that you always want to be doing.  Now you are able to switch between weapons and pinning foes up against a wall with various sharp objects.  Stasis serves as a way to freeze objects and enemies around you for a short period of time.  Again, this tool has become more necessary in this game, as you have many moments where multiple enemies are rushing you, and slowing some of them down can be a very good thing.

Finally, in regards to gameplay, the previous game featured some awkward platforming type elements, when Isaac would be moving around in zero-gravity environments.  He would have to jump from surface to surface, which tended to become somewhat confusing at times.  In this game, Isaac is freed from these movement shackles, and is now able to travel freely through zero-g environments, which is a worthwhile improvement.  It is still easy to become disoriented, but a nifty jetpack to help you through space is nice to have.

 
As far as difficulty goes, the game offers many different levels of difficulty to choose from, with an unlockable “hard core” difficulty open to the player after beating the game.  Just like the first game, much of the challenge comes from inventory management.  Saving up your ammo is the key to survival, but that aspect is countered by being flanked by tons of enemies at one time.  The game offers a store and upgrade station to purchase and improve the abilities of your weapons, so it is important to figure out which weapons suit your play style best.  In addition to ammo conservation, you will be challenged by the various set pieces that this game has to offer.  At many times Isaac may be blindsided by sudden perspective changes, which will alter how the camera positions you, which is both exciting and very intense.  One example of this is a sequence where Isaac is suspended upside down, by his foot, while enemies surround him.  These types of moments certainly mix things up for the game and serve as some intense challenges.

Dead Space 2 does offer a number of features to keep that disc in your console after you beat it.  Along with the unlockable “hard core” game mode, the game gives you the option to replay it with all of your same upgrades and weapons from the start.  It has trophies/achievements of course.  There are lots of behind the scenes goodies packed in as well.  The game also features some downloadable content as well, such as additional costumes with their own strengths.  Finally, there are some online multiplayer modes, which I will address in a moment.


The game does have some flaws.  Isaac’s internal struggle is very interesting, but the overall story is not as memorable.  While you are less of an errand boy, as you were in the first game, your main goal is basically to go from A to B, while monsters chase you.  This game mostly eliminates backtracking, which is nice, but still plays out in a fairly linear fashion.  Your fascination with this world is what effects your appreciation of the story the most.  The game also features multiplayer, which I have honestly yet to dive into, simply because I do not really care about having that option, nor have I heard very good things about it.  I like the claustrophobic experience of the main campaign; online multiplayer, not so much.  Finally, an aspect I found missing from this game was epic boss battles.  The first game had a few encounters with some pretty large scale creatures, but I was sad to not find those same encounters present here.  In terms of the way the setting is handled, I can understand why, but it is still an element that I miss.


As both an obsessive filmgoer and big gamer, among other things, I have to balance the time I spend playing video games accordingly.  It is not often that I blast through single-player campaigns very quickly.  However, once in a while, a game I have been anticipating will come out and satisfy me a great deal.  Dead Space 2 delivered that experience.  I was enjoying spending time with this game so much that I had trouble putting it down, even as I continued to stress myself out by playing it in my optimal settings to expand upon the unnerving sense that this game naturally builds up.  It is a fantastic game that surpasses the original (at least as far as the gameplay is concerned) for sure.  Under the right settings, any player can find both a game that is scary and full of hard core, sci-fi action.  I had a lot of fun playing through this game and I can only hope this series continues to deliver in its inevitable sequel.


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